Once in a class I was telling a story about Cleveland. Here’s what I said, roughly:
So I lived in East Cleveland in this high rise building. Most of my neighbors were black. I don’t know why; the building was nice and everything.
I know you immediately saw it, didn’t you? The blatant racism and ignorance that informed my comment. In what way does it make any sense that black people wouldn’t live in a nice building. Of course, I see that now, but I didn’t even think before I said it. . . it just was what I thought – uncensored, unreasoned. It was the prejudice I had been taught coming through unfiltered. (Thank goodness I had forgiving students who were willing to see me for more than my prejudices.)
My parents raised my brother and I to be accepting, loving people who didn’t see race. Yet, they were raised by parents whose views on people of color were (and are) fear and hate-based. So all of the stereotypes about race didn’t disappear. Plus, I was raised in the South where many people, if not blatantly racist, believe – consciously or not – in the insurmountable differences between people of different races. All of this teaching – direct and indirect – reached me, and the hardest part is that I didn’t even realize it.
I want to believe I am free of prejudice and racism. I want to believe I see people as individuals and value each person for who that person is. I want to believe I am better than I am.
As I’ve been having conversations with people, I see similar prejudices – often unacknowledged or recognized – coming up. . . One person says that the slaves stayed near the plantations on where they were owned, and this piece of fact (which is true in many cases) is supposed to indicate that slavery “wasn’t that bad,” as if these people had lots of other options when they were without any money or education. Another person refuses to acknowledge that it is likely that Thomas Jefferson fathered several children with one of his slaves, and the refusal comes not just from a wish to glorify TJ but also from a quiet belief that people should “stay with their kind.”
I have decided I will speak the truth, and I will do my best to speak it in love. The hardest part of this process is recognizing my own beliefs, my own inherited and unconsciously cultivated beliefs about various groups of people. Yet, if I cannot look inward and work to overcome my own prejudices, I have no hope that my words will help anyone do the same.
So here I am, speaking the truth. I have racist beliefs. I hold prejudices and ideas that tell me things about groups of people. I stereotype – all the time.
But here’s the other truth. I am trying to overcome these beliefs. I am acknowledging them and fighting them. I am trying to undo the teaching I have received. And it’s hard and painful and humbling. . . but it’s so worth doing.